Outsourcing is a secretive affair, been going on for years but nobody wants to admit it. – Owain Bennallack.
It is the future of games. It has to be. – Mark Estdale of audio specialists Outsource Media.
Chaired eloquently by Elixir Studio’s Mark Hewitt (himself an outsourcing sceptic who opened the conference by challenging TIGA’s members to convince him of it’s merits by the end of the day), the gathering of UK development community provided an opportunity for outsourcers to sell themselves in the ‘outsourcer’s panel’, as well as developers telling tales of their own experiences when bringing in work out-house during the ‘developers panel discussion’. The beginnings of a framework of good outsourcing practice was discussed, with the hope that TIGA would issue standard guidelines the industry could benefit from.
First – some truisms:
Why do developers outsource? Pretty obvious really – to save money. Why get twenty staff in on payroll when you can get some freelancers for half the cost? Makes sense, especially when you have publishers on your financially burdened back. With the spectre of next-generation development looming large on the horizon, costs spiralling into the upper stratosphere and production values going through the roof, it’s going to be difficult for a single studio’s in-house team to make an epic game in all its glory – and to deadline. Outsourcing looks like the rose-tinted answer.
Why don’t they? Again, fairly predictable. If you offshore work to a Russian company you know nothing about, not only do you have to keep flying over there to kick them up the backside every week, but you have language difficulties, project management issues and a whole host of other nightmares to contend with. The result: they need more money and more time to provide you with something so far from what you wanted it’s a different game.
What do developers outsource? Localisation, Q&A testing, music, audio and motion capture. Stuff you just can’t do in your busy offices.
According to Rick Gobson MBA, however, who revealed the results of a survey of TIGA members on outsourcing, these views, as well as many others concerned with outsourcing, are misconceived. He found, particularly over the last couple of years, a significant rise in outsourcing in areas around background and environmental artwork, character artwork, animation, design and script.
Most respondents were much happier with the successes than they were concerned with the failures of outsourcing. 95% of respondents intended to outsource work over the next two years. Expenditure on outsourcing will increase 53% over the next two years. That’s 17% of their annual development budget – up from just under ten this year.
As Rick said: ‘Informal feedback that I’ve received is that people see outsourcing as some kind of threat to what developers do. We found from our sample that that was overwhelmingly not the case. 62% see outsourcing as a major opportunity and another 40% see it is a wider opportunity.’
Indeed, the usefulness of outsourcers to developers was summed up best by George Neilans, from Alive Interactive Media, a 3D-art outsourcing studio, in the language that speaks loudest – money: ‘Outsourcers in many ways can come to developers and say, we’re gonna save you 30 to 50% in development costs. Whether it’s onshore or offshore there are a lot of different benefits and opportunities, including improved, efficient production. Outsourcing is an on and off switch. You can turn it on and turn it off. These guys can help developers tremendously.’
The feature pictures which accompany this article are from Bad Boys II and Andrew Oliver, Chief Technical Officer Blitz explains that "Bad Boys II was a classic example of a project with a short development time. It had to be finished in time for the DVD release of the film so it would have been tough for us to create all the assets in-house with having an enormous team and therefore upping our overheads massively. Instead we sub-contracted out large chunks of art creation including ancillary characters, creation of destructible objects, fleshing out of pre-blocked levels, and so on. We also sub-contracted all of the cut scenes for the game, and being able to efficiently control a range of contractors as well as our own team whilst maintaining a consistent creative vision was vital in us getting the game out on time."
Technically, work provided by Irish companies to UK developers is considered offshoring, which brings with it a whole heap of prejudicial baggage within the industry. According to Rick: ‘We found that there were fears about the quality of work, communications and project management difficulties and a number of others, including financial mistrust, competency and quality mistrust, limited or no development control and a lack of information on providers. It’s quite hard it seems to find information on outsourcers and the kind of services they provide. At times the outsourcers themselves can be a little secretive about the kind of work that they do.’
There are many advantages Ireland has over their European counterparts when pitching work to the UK. The language barrier isn’t there for one, and there are little if any cultural differences, ensuring briefs will be understood. One factor you just can’t do anything about however, are currency problems. The volatile nature of the Euro compared with the Pound means that there will be times when it will be beneficial for developers to seek European work and times when it won’t. Don’t think labour will ever be cheaper in Ireland than it is in Russia either.
One concern with offshoring that emerged from the three o’clock developer panel discussion, held between Dave Nicholson of Climax, Jonathan Newth of Kuju, Andrew Oliver of Blitz, Nigel Little of Distinction, and Martin Alltimes of Eidos, was the tiresome, expensive and time-consuming travelling that was necessary to visit companies contracted to do work (and to check they actually exist). Although UK developers can’t drive a few miles to see how the work is progressing (ideally, many publishers want a UK office for their outsourcers), it’s often quicker and cheaper to fly over to Ireland than drive across Britain. Compare this to offshoring to Asia, and you can immediately see the advantage. As one developer told me over drinks after the main conference: ‘I don’t have a problem with it. That’s what EasyJet’s for!’
The outsourcers panel discussion, held at five, was as much a desperate attempt to convince developers that they weren’t going to get ripped off as deliberate attempts to sell themselves. Most took the opportunity to tell their employers how they could improve the process of project management between developers and outsourcers, and to demand and expect the best. Harpp Seble, of Dutch based 3D modelling and artwork outsourcers Streamline proclaimed: ´You’re as good as your last project. No one remembers three projects ago. If your last project you mess up, that’s what people remember.’
According to Rick, two-thirds of developers found their way to an outsourcer by word-of-mouth and referral only, suggesting that ‘this is still quite an informal industry that lacks representation, promotion and formal listings. But it also suggests that we’re still in the early days and people want to be sure they’ve chosen somebody who has given good results to someone else.’ One developer told me, with particular reference to the possibility of Irish companies providing work to his company, that he had no idea who was out there.
Most developers agreed with the need for a central database to find creditable outsourcers. TIGA was mooted by the floor as a potential architect of such a resource, which would include how well outsourcers had performed and details of quality of work. What was clear from the developers panel discussion though, was that most would be unwilling to divulge information on their tried and trusted outsourcers for their rivals to see, and potentially rob. Attendees were left with the impression that any database success would depend on TIGA and outsourcers only.
Which highlights the importance of being at TIGA conferences really. The day was interposed with networking opportunities before the 2pm start and during it, supplanted by tea and coffee. Most usefully though, over drinks at the end of the day at 7pm. Because TIGA pretty much encompasses the entire UK development industry, outsourcers were guaranteed a large pool with which to pitch work to.
As Rick says, most outsourcing work is given on the back of what someone in-house recommends, or a friend says. Events like this provide essential networking opportunities that allow business cards to be swapped, ideas pitched and for you to get the word out. Without a database of outsourcing companies available at present, this is pretty much the only way a prospective company can advertise their work.
What of the future? Many believe the film model will become the norm – where almost all work is outsourced except for design. Game Republic, headed up by Charles Cecil, (who attended the conference) is an example of a company that does just that. What this future implies, of course, is development companies consisting of agents co-ordinating and nothing else. The industry faces a massive recruitment crisis in the next-generation – double the workforce will be required for half the projects. As Martin Alltimes lamented: ‘We cannot sustain growth in business on internal resources.’
And so we come full circle – did TIGA’s conference in rainy Leeds change the mind of the man who has never used outsourcing before in his life? Perhaps not, but with PS3 and Xbox2 knocking on the door, he, as well as the entire UK videogame community, may have to.
With this in mind, delegates meandered to the foyer, where the clink of wineglasses could be heard over the enthusiastic chatter of an industry buoyed by the prospect of outsourcers helping it make more money. Or perhaps it was just simple discussion on what ten bars to frequent late into the cold Yorkshire night.
For information on TIGA, upcoming events and the evolving framework for outsourcing in the games development industry, check out http://www.tiga.orgwww.tiga.org
Author Bio: Wesley Yin-Poole is a freelance videogame journalist and feature writer for The Mail on Sunday. He regularly contributes to videogame websites in Europe and the US.